As Christmas draws closer, it’s inevitable that some couples will grow further apart. In fact, the festive season is one of the peak times of year to break up with a partner. But what should you say to end a relationship gently?
According to an analysis of break-ups via Facebook statuses back in 2010, there was a spike in relationships ending two weeks before Christmas Day, with most splits occurring on 11 December.
Another survey of over 2,000 people discovered the last decent date to break-up with someone before Christmas is 6 December – anything later was deemed ‘unacceptable’, according to the research by Hillarys.co.uk.
“One of the reasons why so many people in unhappy relationships break up in the lead-up to Christmas is because there are far more opportunities to meet new people over Christmas and New Year,” says chartered psychologist Dr Audrey Tang of the British Psychological Society.
“It’s a much more social time and so you’re far more likely to meet someone new. But that doesn’t mean to say it will be any less painful to break up.”
Limor Gottlieb, a relationship researcher at Brunel University and founder of coaching programme Love Evolved, agrees. "Splitting up at this time of year doesn’t mean it won’t be distressing, but according to several studies, breakups are not as catastrophic as people tend to think. If you’re not getting your needs met, you should think of a breakup as no longer wasting each other’s time when you’re incompatible and allowing each other to move on."
Of course, when children are involved in the relationship, it makes matters far more complex. But if it’s only the two of you, what is the best way to let your soon-to-be ex down as gently as possible so they can start to move on in time for Christmas? Experts agree there are definite dos and don’ts.
“Ghosting them, texting them or making them break up with you is never the right thing to do,” says Dr Tang. “People often do this because they fear conflict, perhaps remembering how they felt when they were younger and saw their parents arguing."
Most people hate conflict and so it's unsurprising that when wanting to end a relationship, many of us will go to great lengths to avoid an in-person scenario, instead deciding to take the 'easier' option of dumping by text, phone or ghosting.
“Our immediate reaction to conflict is something called the ‘negative affect’ when fear and anger trigger an instinctive response to avoid a situation before the logical mind has a chance to think about what’s going on."
But avoiding the harsh reality that your relationship is on the rocks isn't the best policy. So, if you're sure things are over between you, what’s the kindest way to break up with someone?
Our experts suggest the best approach is to take responsibility yourself without blaming your partner.
“The best way to break up with someone is in person and to remove ‘blame language’ such as, ‘You made me feel this way’ or ‘You’ve done this wrong’.
“Instead turn it around to say, ‘I feel this way about our relationship’ and explain why you want to break up. Avoid the cliché of, ‘It’s not you, it’s me’ but have the facts available about how you've been feeling about the relationship and why it’s not working for you anymore.”
Straightforward communication is vital in these difficult circumstances, says Gottlieb. “You need to be very clear and honest about your decision and reasons for breaking up,” she says.
“By being honest, you’re showing you have respect for the person and will help to give them closure. Avoid being vague and giving false hope. Take responsibility for your decision.”
It is also important that you don’t make the breakup all about you. “Be kind enough to listen to the other person and let them ask questions,” says Dr Tang. “Perhaps ask them questions too such as, ‘What can I do that would make this easier for you?’”
Dr Tang says it’s also vital to stand your ground in a situation that could be highly emotional and stressful.
“The worst thing you can do is take your partner up on an offer to ‘fix’ the relationship and ‘make it better again,’" she says. “That’s an abuse of your power and completely unfair on the other person who shouldn’t need to ‘change’ in order to make a relationship work. It’s far better to go through a short burst of pain now and get it over with rather than prolong the inevitable.”
When a relationship has lasted for many years, Dr Tang also says it’s important to avoid the ‘Sunk Cost Bias’. “This is when we – or your partner – go over how much time and energy we’ve put into the relationship, implying we have to make it work,” she says. “But if you’ve already put five or 10 years into this relationship, it’s very unlikely that it’s going to change for the better, so why sink even more costs into it when you know it’s not right for you?”
When it comes to the timing of the break-up, experts believe it’s better to bite the bullet and do it sooner rather than later.
“If you know the relationship isn’t right, then why wait until after Christmas or their birthday or whatever because that could be more hurtful in the long run when they look back at pictures and think, ‘Did he/she want to leave me then?’” says Dr Tang.
“Listen to the signals your body is giving out regarding how you feel about your relationship. Instinctively you will know if it feels wrong."
She also suggests choosing a neutral ground for the breakup and ensuring it is private so you don’t "make a scene".
“If you have your own place, it’s not fair to invite them round to break up as already they’ll be feeling more vulnerable," she says. "Instead, perhaps go for a walk so they can let out emotion without being seen by others. It’s so important to do it in person and to look them in the eye so they have no chance of misunderstanding what you mean.”
Read more: How to tell if someone fancies you
And what about heartbreak afterwards? Gottlieb says making a clean break is healthiest so you can look forward to the future.
“You should cut off contact with your ex afterwards out of respect for the person’s feelings and to signal that the relationship is truly over,” she says. “This allows the person to process their emotions and to move on. It’s so important that you don’t let fear get in the way of breaking up with someone before Christmas –according to research, you’ll be doing both you and your partner a favour.”
Dr Audrey Tang is author of The Leader’s Guide To Mindfulness – How to use soft skills to get hard results (FT Publishing, £14.99). For relationship counselling services, see Relate.org.uk.